In their new book Equity in Education Professor Lee Elliot Major and Emily Briant offer a practical guide for teachers looking to play their part in levelling the playing field of learning.
When I used to teach about equality of opportunity in education I’d start things off by choosing the smallest student in the class (I’m over 6’ tall) and telling them we both had an equal opportunity to achieve by touching the ceiling. A fact I mention because although I was offering the student equality, I was deliberately denying them equity (at least until I offered them a chair to stand on. But that’s a whole other discussion).
And this, in a nutshell, is the argument put-forward by Lee Elliot Major and Emily Briant in their new book Equity in Education. A short (159 pages) but very accessible book that describes itself as “a practical guide for teachers” interested in “Levelling the playing field of learning”. It is, of course, a bit more complicated than teaching students harsh-but-fair lessons in inequality.
The book is divided into 4 sections, the first of which sets the scene by going over the well-trodden ground of post-war educational inequality: the myth of meritocracy, the persistence of the belief in education as a motor of social mobility, despite all evidence to the contrary and a seemingly ever-increasing “educational arms race”, the cruder manifestations of which occur at the level of private tutoring and exclusive schooling and whose wider ramifications play-out in the notion of elite universities and degrees…
This will, of course, be very familiar to sociology teachers, as will short chapters on Bourdieu and cultural capital – a concept that has both contemporary resonance and one that highlights how even radical ideas and processes can become twisted to support the educational status quo in contemporary Britian. Although Ofsted have chosen to highlight the importance of cultural capital, their adopted definition (“the essential knowledge that pupils need to be educated citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said and helping to engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.”) contorts the concept to fit a much more-persistent theme in post-war British (and, to be fair, American) schooling: compensatory education. The vampire belief that if schools could just be made to “compensate” working class kids for their “deficient” culture, everything would be (educationally) hunky dory.
As familiar as these ideas may be, it’s no bad thing to introduce them to teachers who’ve never studied sociology by asking them to recognise and confront their own beliefs and assumptions about both the world, the role of the education system and their place, as teachers, within this system. This sets-up the main arguments in the book, beginning with the idea that “a realistic and ambitious role for schools is to act as engines of equity rather than social mobility machines”.
The implication here is that while “This means acknowledging the range of material and cultural barriers to learning faced by pupils inside and outside of school” teachers can and should make a difference by “prioritising support for pupils that they can most help”.
If you’re into that sort of thing this section, as with all the others, lists a small number of “Headline Takeaways” that provide a relatively simple summary of its key ideas before we get to the meat of the matter.
Section 2 starts to introduce the material the majority of the book’s readers will be looking for – the practical ways they can help to level the educational playing field in their schools and classrooms. This, in broad terms, involves the development of an “equity mindset” based around four key principles:
- Equity not equality: the need to take steps to consciously “recognise and address inequities in learners’ experiences“.
- Capacity not deficit thinking: in basic terms, focusing on what students can do, rather than what they can’t.
- Deep not shallow relationships: seeing children as more than just exam fodder…
- Multiple not singular talents: “valuing and celebrating” the many different forms of talent displayed by children, not just their academic performance.
Most of the subsequent section is given-over to a mixture of empathetic reassurance mixed with advice on how to develop a teaching mindset that benefits every student, beginning with the importance of creating inclusive cultures. Part of this process involves teachers thinking reflexively about their practice (probably something that goes without saying) and more-importantly the assumptions they bring to or develop within the school and classroom. An important aspect of this is the ability to reflect on things like the unconscious biases and stereotypes we all hold about different groups – from the abilities of different students to those of different teachers.
An interesting suggestion the authors make is for teachers to take advantage of the different cultural backgrounds each of their students bring to the classroom and how each, in turn, can be considered a valuable educational resource. Having said that, of course, one teacher’s valuable resource might simply be another’s distraction “from the real business of education”.
Take the current “debate” over the use of personal technology, such as mobile phones, in the classroom. For some the easy availability and ubiquity of the tech students bring to school is potentially a hugely-exiting educational jumping-off point. For others it’s just a massive distraction from the “real business” of teaching. No prizes for guessing which view the government currently favours…
Be that as it may, the bottom line – reinforced by a chapter of its own – is the “development of authentic relationships” and how to achieve them in the light of a range of different capitals: economic, cultural, social and educational. Again, this might be new to readers without a sociological background and these different capitals are introduced and explained diagrammatically for ease of comprehension. While we could quibble over something like whether the authors’ “educational capital” is empirically unique or simply another dimension of cultural capital, that probably misses the (instructional) point.
The section on developing a school equity mindset is an important one because it reminds us that human actions are invariably influenced by the structures within which they occur. Individual teachers reading this text and wanting to act on its advice will find it difficult to do so in isolation or without the active co-operation of the school and its hierarchy. The authors address this problem through the idea of creating inclusive cultures, in terms of both students who have to buy into a different way of organising educational learning and colleagues who similarly need to embrace the change. Both are, of course, crucial to the success or failure of the enterprise and, in my admittedly limited experience, neither are a given: change is never painless, which is why a book of this type is a valuable resource for teachers looking to introduce it.
As with the previous section, this one contains practical tips and techniques predicated on a range of sociological and psychological insights that are clearly explained and assume little or no prior knowledge on the part of the reader; a feature of the book that helps avoid the error of being prescriptive rather than supportive. Here, for example, you’ll find advice on how to create and foster a school culture based around equitable relationships between the various interested parties. This is something that involves putting in place both structural processes, such as a fairer admissions policy, and developing ways to ensure these structures are implemented at the individual level – the interface, as it were, between staff and students and their respective requirements.
The objective here is to understand how equitable structures can form the basis for authentic relationships, both within the school and between the school and it’s wider community. Something that leads indirectly into the final, shortish, section.
Schools are not isolated systems that exist only on their own terms. They are, on the contrary, subject to a wide range of political, economic and cultural constraints that dramatically affect how they persist and perform. English schools in the 21st century also seem to increasingly straddle an almost schizophrenic line between freedom and control.
On the one hand, successive governments have added new forms of governance, from free schools to multi-academy trusts, to the already diverse – some might say muddled – mix of comprehensives, grammars and (fee-paying) Independent schools. The former have frequently been expressly given the freedom to experiment with new and different ways of teaching, learning and organisation with, it must be said, distinctly mixed results. And while I’m not altogether convinced the authors are totally enamoured by some of the school policies and classroom practices they describe, they do at least given them a fair airing.
On the other the behaviour of schools is increasingly tightly constrained by the same central government, not just in terms of basic ideas about things like exam testing and inspection but frequently in terms of a bewildering array of Acts and Initiatives that, since 1988, to take a date at quasi-random, have come thick and fast. The vast majority of which, it must be said, have disappeared equally quickly, leaving little or no impression aside from increasing teachers’ workloads.
While it may often seem as though English education exists in blissful ignorance of what’s happening across the rest of the world, this final section provides a quick run-through of some of what we might uncharitably term the Good, the Bad and the decidedly Ugly policies found therein – out of which the authors argue we should draw three main lessons:
- A national approach to equity must be meaningful and authentic: inclusivity rather than the de facto segregation that pertains across so much of the UK educational landscape is the key lesson to learn: a useful mantra here might be “Equity comes first and excellence follows”.
- Levelling the playing field requires a combined effort inside and outside schools: the two have to act in concert.
- There is more to developing human talents than just preparing for narrow academic tests: perhaps the most damning criticism of our current education system is it’s increasingly narrow focus on quantitative measurement as the only real measure of educational value. We really have to move beyond this particular deficit mindset if we are to produce a truly equitable education system that functions for the benefit of all.
Although this has been quite a long and exhaustive (exhausting?) review, if you’ve jumped to the final paragraph to see what the conclusion might be (I get it, you’re a busy teacher) maybe this might help:
If you’re looking for a relatively short, eminently readable, book that clearly and carefully sets-out to show teachers how it’s possible to both reflect on the realities of educational inequality and take positive steps to transform them into more equitable relationships, you could do a lot worse than get yourself a copy of Equity in Education.
Lee Elliot Major and Emily Briant (2023) “Equity in education: Levelling the playing field of learning – a practical guide for teachers”: John Catt Educational Ltd